About seven years ago, chances were that you could find a swinging burlesque show taking the stage at Cliff Bell's on a Sunday night. Back then, Grace Detroit's Torch With a Twist revue would offer a night's worth of entertainment in the swanky, old-fashioned club, which provided a picture-perfect setting for that sort of entertainment, as the art deco accents of the joint recall the smokier joints of yesteryear, and the craft cocktails sealed the deal.
And then, for years, burlesque simply went elsewhere. Which makes it all the more surprising that, this month, Cliff Bell's features back-to-back weekends of events with burlesque performances as their centerpieces.
Cliff Bell's entertainment director, Phil Salatrik, says putting burlesque on the back burner was part of a conscious effort to remake the smoke-filled cabaret into more of a jazz supper club.
"After the kitchen opened up, the club went for a more refined experience as far as what type of entertainment programming we were doing," he says. "And while it made a lot of sense at the time, I was always kind of against doing away with burlesque in general."
Salatrik felt that burlesque didn't necessarily conflict with the fine-dining aspect. "It did still have its Detroit grit that worked well with the sauciness of burlesque ... and finally the rest of the managers agreed it was a good idea to bring it back."
Of all the burlesque events landing on Cliff Bell's calendar, the first is perhaps the most interesting. It's called Bobby Ray's Blues & Burlesque Show, and it's a much more diverse show than usual, drawing on the talented burlesque scene of today and built around a core of African-American musicians rooted in Detroit's bluesy past.
Ray Smith, the organizer of the event, is a more seasoned promoter than those of most burlesque shows in town. Smith, who goes by the stage name Bobby Ray, used to promote R&B and hip-hop in the 1980s and early 1990s, but says he was squeezed out of the game like many others when large national companies moved in on Detroit.
But the wheels started turning in his head after seeing a few burlesque performances at Studio 54 in the Leland Hotel and Cliff Bell's itself.
"What came to mind was John Lee Hooker and old classic movies about showgirls," Smith says. "It really interested me at the time. I got familiar with a lot of the blues musicians in Detroit and also met some of the burlesque performers and just thought it fit so well together that I'd pursue that model of classic entertainment."
The burlesque performances will hark back to the middle of the 20th century, Detroit's golden age of show bars, and the costumes will be elaborate — at least until the strip teases get going. Similarly, the show's five-piece band will be of an earlier era, playing what Smith calls "Howling Wolf-type blues," with musicians who've even played with heavies from the old days of Hastings Street and Paradise Valley. Cash McCall, once a session musician and songwriter for Chess Records, will be on the stage, as will Billy Davis — who used to play with Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, and David Ruffin, and even taught Jimi Hendrix a little guitar.
The band will also feature Harmonica Shah on harp, a player whose style was influenced by Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, among others. A world-traveled musician, Shah heaps praise upon the old-time harmonica players of Detroit, the sort of performers he'll emulate as part of the show.
"The best harmonica players first came to Detroit to learn right from the Butler Twins, Baby Boy Warren, Robin Richard. Little Walter would come to Detroit ask Robin how to make those wolf calls and train sounds. Some of those guys could take one harmonica, go in a bar on 12th Street and turn the whole damn bar on. Or strap a harmonica around their neck and make it sound like a saxophone when they'd play guitar."
It was with such musicians that Shah got his start, and he says he'd "get a little mad" at some of the old cats, because "they could do things I couldn't do."
In those days, Hastings Street had already been plowed under for the Chrysler Freeway a decade before, and the blues mecca had moved to 29th Street and Michigan Avenue, where you'd meet guys who'd played harp with John Lee Hooker, Baby Boy Warren, and Calvin Frazier. They'd spin tales of the glory days for Paradise Valley, and Shah was their admirer and imitator. "I saw the best," he says, "taking one harmonica and getting five different keys with it. Learned how to blow a harmonica and how to talk on stage. And I saw them live, talking with them right up close."
That sort of intimacy will no doubt be part of the show at Cliff Bell's, with Mickey Mandrake as the emcee who will, as Smith puts it, keep the crowd engaged with the show.
The burlesque talent will be headed up by Holly Hock, a seasoned performer who has traveled across the country before settling here two years ago, and has performed with Detroit's Dizzy Dames and other local troupes. She's helped Smith put together a roster of some of the Midwest's best strip-tease talent, and she tells us, "It's hard to find real good classic burlesque dancers."
She continues: "Our goal with the show was to merge two things that go hand in hand. Blues and burlesque were both popular in the same era, and we wanted to basically make this show a tribute to the history of blues and burlesque, inspired by the really classic era of the 1940s to the 1960s."
If the 1960s seem a stretch, Hock points out that classic Detroit performers such as
Lottie the Body and Toni Elling were definitely of that era.
Performers that Hock admires will take the stage, including Michigan's own Magenta Demure, as well as Kat de Lac from Pittsburgh. What's more, Hock says, the wardrobe will be eye-popping. She describes one outfit with "hundreds of rhinestones and feathers, just really exuding that 1940s classic glamor luxury look."
"It's going to be very sensual, sexy adult-oriented show inspired by vintage, classic burlesque," Hock says. "All involved with this show are seasoned veterans. It's pretty easy to pull everyone together to make this happen, and it's something I'd like to see continue in the future."
The next weekend will feature more burlesque, with Rouge! Detroit coming in from Chicago to present its "electroswing" party, endorsed by the Theatre Bizarre crew, no less. Not a straight burlesque show, the sonic entertainment will be provided by DJ Vourteque and Mr. Automatic, with burlesque from Lady Lenux.
And the burlesque won't stop there. Cliff Bell's Salatrik says, at other clubs, a promoter would have to send out the word and hope burlesque troupes came calling, but, as Salatrik tells it, "We just picked right back up where we left off. Detroit Dizzy Dames did a show here for the first time in many years in late spring, and as soon as that happened, the word spread throughout the burlesque community. We're almost out of room on the calendar to get them in." — mt
Bobby Ray's Blues & Burlesque Show starts at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 10 (admission is $12), and Rouge! Detroit starts at 8 p.m. Aug. 17 (admission is $10), at Cliff Bell's, 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543.